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Archive for November, 2022

Mystery Monday Review – The Shortest Way to Hades

Monday, November 7th, 2022

The Shortest Way to Hades by Sarah Caudwell

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


This 1984 mystery opens with five young London barristers — Cantrip, Selena, Timothy, Ragwort, and Julia – handling a trust in such a way as to save the 5-million-pound estate a 3-million-pound tax bill. But to support a court petition to make the trust incontestable, one of the cousins demands 100-thousand pounds for her signature – which makes the barristers of the other cousins up their price for signatures too. But the demanding cousin suddenly dies of blunt force trauma due to a fall from a height. The coroner rules it was an accident.

The five young barristers call in their friend Hilary Tamar to rootle about and determine if the cause of death was in fact an accident. Or murder. Or suicide. Hilary is an Oxford historian with powerful reasoning skills. Not so much an unreliable narrator as a prejudiced one, Oxonian Hilary gets barbs into Cambridge in that offhand way only an English intellectual can pull off. Hilary plumps down on the side of rigorous scholarship, to an extent naïve and pompous at the same time. But narrator Hilary is never ridiculous and promises, “Cost candour what it may, I will not deceive my readers.”

Indeed, ridiculous is saved for Julia Larwood. You would think a tax attorney has a good fix on details but Julia is absent-minded and disorganized (as the English say: scatty). She tends to lose key documents and tuck away never to be found again letters that she is too afraid to open and read. She’s also easily distracted by male beauty. Everybody knows she’s arrived because they can hear her knocking over coat racks and dropping her handbag. Best of all, she’s as quixotic as a thirteen-year-old, apt to get on a high horse about Sir Thomas More and all that ethics jazz. Julia is a marvelous comic creation.

Fans of old-school whodunnits will think of the Bright Young Things of Craig Rice novels when they hear the wit and raillery directed at Hilary by Cantrip, Selena, Timothy, Ragwort, and Julia. They will also like old-school standbys like the family tree, the map of the layout of Rupert’s apartment, and some narrative given in letters. The plot is agreeably complicated and the legal-babble will call to mind the instructive explications of Henry Cecil. The stylish language is for readers who like literate mystery writers like Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, and to a lesser extent Margery Allingham. There are British words all over the place: subfusc, rumbustious, tickety-boo, nip off to the loo, and get in a tizwozz.

I recommend this delightful legal mystery. Caudwell wrote only three other Hilary Tamar mysteries. She passed away at the age of 60 in the year 2000.



Fantasy Review – The Golden Enclaves

Friday, November 4th, 2022

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

THE GOLDEN ENCLAVES is the third of The Scholomance trilogy. This review will have minor spoilers for A DEADLY EDUCATION and THE LAST GRADUATE. You have been warned.

You can read my review of The Last Graduate on an earlier blog post by clicking here.

If you thought the idea of sending your kids to a brutal school where they were very likely to be killed was dark, wait till you read this last entry  But though there are dark doings, the tone of the book is not so grim. It’s asking important questions: Do the needs of the many really outweigh the needs of the few? Can the ends ever justify the means?

To briefly sum up: Galadriel (call her El), the immensely powerful teen wizard who has sworn never to use dark magic, has survived graduation day in The Scholomance. Not only that but she’s managed to bring everyone else – even the junior students – out alive, and sent the entire school into the Void from whence it can’t return.  The numbers of monsters therefore have been hugely reduced.  There, she thinks, that takes care of that and kids won’t have to die.

Oh but wait – El brought out all but one. Her boyfriend Orion is still in there.  Eaten by the maw-mouth, which means he is forever in torment, trapped inside the maw-mouth which is now trapped inside the Void. But wait again, because as it turns out there is a way to get back into the school.  And once El learns that, nothing is more important than ending Orion’s torment. Except as it turns out maybe there are some other things that need doing.

El’s quest is going to bring her to meet her great-grandmother, who famously prophesied that El would cause the destruction of the enclaves and the deaths of thousands, thus causing the ostracism of El and her mother. El’s determination never to become a maleficer, an evil wizard, stems entirely from her fierce resentment of that treatment and her rejection of the prophecy. Now she’s going to learn some things she really, really did not want to know about the enclaves and even about Orion. It turns out that killing the monsters is making things worse.  El is filled with rage but at the same time she thinks there has to be a better way, a solution to this continual slaughter.  With the help of her friends, she might be able to pull it off.

The book (and the series as a whole) suffers from too much description – all those monsters! – plus too much of El’s internal dialogue fed by her constant anger.  Too much telling in proportion to showing.  There isn’t exactly a happily-ever-after ending, although when it all stops, the world will have less evil in it and no one we care about has died.  I found it a satisfying and believable ending given how that world was constructed – El knows what she’s meant to do and she has allies to help her do it.

I liked the series as a whole, not as much as her TEMERAIRE books, but they make a good read. Excellent world-building along with sympathetic heroes. The pacing does tend to drag, but the villains have understandable motives and an excuse for their later failure to act.  Definitely recommended.